For 21 year-old Paola Villegas, freshman year at UC Santa Barbara was anything but easy. “It can be a very intimidating and very isolating experience as a first-generation Latina,” Villegas says. “With McNair, I was able to find a community. [It is an] open and inclusive space for me, validating my experience as a student.”
Villegas’s coined “McNair” is the McNair Scholars Program, a program that prepares qualified undergraduates for entrance into a PhD track. Its focus is to increase the number of first-generation, low-income and/or underrepresented students in PhD programs, ultimately diversifying faculty in colleges and universities across the country.
“Research and graduate programs benefit from having scholars who reflect the communities we serve and live in,” says Monique Limon, Assistant Director for the McNair Scholars Program at UC Santa Barbara. This is particularly significant at UCSB, where over a third of its undergraduates are first-generation students and over half come from underrepresented groups.
In fact, many higher education institutions like UC Santa Barbara have designed their universities to mirror the complexity and plurality that exists on a global scale. This diversity exists at every level: in learning environments where student bodies are mixed, and in teaching environments where faculty populations are mixed. The McNair Program plays an important role in this mission.
“A real highlight of my year,” reflects Gene Lucas, former Executive Vice Chancellor (EVC) for UC Santa Barbara, “was seeing the big smiles on the faces of McNair Scholars who had graduated from the program and were bound for some of the best graduate schools in the country.”
Lucas’s own journey included its set of hardships, as his father was the first to attend college. “[My parents put] all three of their kids through college and I was the first to go to graduate school,” says Lucas. “My opportunity to work in higher education and my love of the university has thus put the McNair Scholars Program in a special place in my heart.”
In 2013, Lucas’s appreciation for the McNair Scholars became even more evident. When national funding for the program was cut, Lucas allocated substantial resources to help sustain the program. His support for the McNair Scholars, along with hundreds of civic-minded stakeholders, served to keep the program alive.
Today, alumni like Erik Suarez ’15 benefit from the generosity of private philanthropy to the McNair Scholars Program. He, like many others, is on the PhD track and empowered to drive academic discourse in the 21st century.
“I first met Erik when he was a student in my Economics 1 class,” says Suarez’s mentor and Economics Professor, Jon Sonstelie. “Though he was one of 700, he stood out, not only for his performance on exams, but also for his enthusiasm for the subject.” Sonstelie adds: “I can’t believe he has traveled so far so fast, from a freshman in Economics 1 to a grad student at a top econ program, all in just four short years!”
Since graduating, Suarez has begun his first year at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he is committed to an Economics PhD track. “I’ve always been interested in how the lens of economics can be used to apply to social and economic issues—everything from education, to the labor force, to health,” says Suarez.
Back in Santa Barbara, Paola Villegas is in the midst of applying to several graduate schools. She has already secured early admission to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she can pursue a Master’s degree in Urban Planning. Her research focus is rental housing discrimination.
“For my research, I always try to draw from my lived experiences,” Villegas shares. “Having McNair has been very helpful on campus; seeing the effectiveness of the program [and] so many students going on to advanced degrees!” Indeed those advanced degrees, like the one Suarez is pursuing, ensure a future of globally-aware and culturally-sensitive scholars.
“I’d like to give back through mentoring other students once I am a professor,” shares Suarez. “[It’s] how I’ll be able to pay forward the help that I received through McNair.”